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Alan Milburn MP, Health Secretary
Alan Milburn MP, Health Secretary


OCTOBER 21ST, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Now the Secretary of State for Health himself, Alan Milburn joins us from the North East, from his home, good morning Alan.

Good morning David.

Let me begin with these front pages, the 16 page paper that has been sent to all councils, prepare for highest casualties ever, the Independent on Sunday says, revealed UK's secret bioterror blueprint, 16 pages sent out by the Civil Contingency Secretariat of the Cabinet Office, what was the main purpose of that, to increase our preparedness?

Well I don't think these reports are particularly helpful, I haven't actually seen them but I do think Hugh Pennington is quite right, we've got to get this thing in absolute proportion. The first thing is that there is no specific credible threat against the United Kingdom or indeed our citizens here and for all of the flurry of activity that we've seen during the course of the last couple of weeks, certainly in the UK there have been no cases of anthrax, there have been a lot of hoaxes and I'll return to that later. In America there have only been a handful of cases proven and as Hugh was quite rightly saying, anthrax is a pretty easy disease to deal with providing it's detected early, most importantly of all it can't be passed from person to person. But what we're trying to do is in a responsible and proportionate way plan for all eventualities, it would be foolish to be anything other than vigilant after the appalling events of September the 11th but I hope that we're doing that in a way that isn't adding to public concerns and I just hope that sections of the media will also respond likewise.

Well it's perfectly valid to raise this, I mean the Independent on Sunday is a free newspaper, it's, it's not free on the street corners but I mean it┐for instance this is the Observer, this is not irresponsible, this is the World Health Organisation, governments around the world have been warned to prepare against a terrorist small pox attack which could kill millions. The World Health Organisation has told them to ensure they can produce enough vaccine to protect their population against the disease. The guidance says small pox is a serious threat because it's easily passed from person to person and that's the WHO who, whose highest joy was what, what they managed to achieve in getting rid of small pox. I mean how, how prepared are we for that?

Well we're pretty well prepared on all of these fronts but I stress again that we're taking this action not because we believe there's a specific or credible threat against us but because in these circumstances there is an obligation on government to prepare for any eventuality however remote the risk might be. Now since the 11th of September we've taken a number of important actions, first of all we've reviewed all of our emergency plans under the leadership of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Donaldson, who's been doing a quite brilliant job of work for us. We've had new guidance out to the Health Service and to the other emergency services. We've clearly had to alert front-line doctors in particular as to what they would need to do in the event of any of these sort of attacks and of course we have taken the appropriate action to get the right logistics and the right supplies in place. Now these are actions that any responsible government would have to carry out but I really do stress again, we've got to get this absolutely in proportion, as far as anthrax is concerned which has been the issue that has been causing most concern, as I say because it can't be passed from person to person it's easy to deal with, there is no specific or credible threat against us and I think in all of these issues we've got to keep a real sense of proportion about it otherwise we're going to have real public panic and that isn't going to help anybody.

Well because of that one of the things that your counterpart in the States, Tommy Thompson has done, is to order up, as you know, small pox vaccine for 300 million people, so that theoretically everybody could be vaccinated in the United States. Do we have that much vaccine that we could do the same if we wish to, how much do we have?

Well I'm not going to get into either the levels or the locations of either vaccine or antibiotic stocks because I don't think that is helpful and indeed I think it plays into the terrorists hands. However what I can say is this, that we're in active discussions with the Americans, indeed I was in Washington just a week or so ago to sign a new agreement with Secretary Thompson, the American Health Secretary, on how our two governments could cooperate to deal with the threat of bio-terrorism. There are things that we can do together here, not least because we can pool intelligence and we can pool some of the real expertise that we've got both in this country and elsewhere and we're looking at what we can do on the joint purchase of vaccines and antibiotics. And it's important to remember and I hope people will really take some comfort from this, that in this country we not only have some of the very best emergency services who are well used to dealing with all manner of problems. But also we have some of the very best scientists and experts in the world, you've heard one of them this morning, Hugh Pennington, there are many others in this country who deal with this sort of thing and I just hope that people again will keep a sense of proportion about the thing.

Well I think, with respect I think much more alarming is when you don't answer the question, we now assume we've got inadequate supplies of small pox vaccine because you wouldn't answer the question - that's alarming?

We've got stocks, no we've got, we've got stocks of small pox vaccine but I actually think that it would be irresponsible and would send out a pretty potent message to the terrorists, you know, if we started describing in detail where the stocks are, what levels we've got and so on and so forth. We've issued guidance to the service, we've taken action to up the stocks, we've already got existing stocks across the whole range of potential bio-terrorism threats to us in this country. But all I say to people is that it is worth keeping in mind what the World Health Organisation say, what our own intelligence reports say which is that there is no specific credible threat against us.

And one thing that's also extremely topical this morning Alan, is this question of the hoaxers, presumably you are 100 per cent behind the thought that they can cop a police sentence of seven years, that this is something that has your strong endorsement?

There have been literally dozens of hoaxes during the course of the last few days in this country and these hoaxes are spreading fear, causing disruption and wasting countless hours of precious police and emergency services time. Now in the event of a real emergency that could end up costing lives so people who carry out these hoaxes need to know that they're not pranks, they're serious crimes and from now on they'll be treated as such.

And from now on, from indeed, from midnight last night?

That's absolutely right and this is an exceptional measure that we're taking but I think it is the right measure, there's always the balance, as David Blunkett has been saying over the course of these last few days to get the balance right between protecting our freedom and democracy in this country and ensuring that it isn't undermined. But I'm afraid given all of the hoaxes that we've seen I don't think there's any alternative and people have got to realise that if they're going to perpetrate these sorts of hoaxes then they're going to face a very stiff sentence indeed.

And are you confident you can manage this winter without a, another flu crisis Alan?

Well we did pretty well last winter, there are always going to be problems in the Health Service, of course there are, and as I've said to you David on countless occasions it would be foolish to pretend otherwise, we've got real problems still today in the NHS, there are bound to be because I think people know that for decades and decades the NHS didn't have the investment that it needs but I think we're making progress and the fact that, for example, that this year, I think it's the first time in 30 years that we've actually got more beds in hospitals is a bit of a turning point, we've got more doctors and nurses as well, the waiting lists and the waiting times are overall moving in the right direction and in particular I'm very, very pleased about the fact that, for example in some of these big areas which, you know, the biggest killers in our country cancer and coronary heart disease, we're really making progress, getting the waiting times down, making sure that people get the best cancer and heart drugs and that is beginning to make a difference. But yes it's a, it's a long haul and it's going to take time and frankly unless we were clear with people about that it would be pretty disingenuous.

Alan thank you very much indeed for joining us.

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